Why, and How, to Hire for Potential Over Experience That candidate with the long resume may be appealing, but the individual with leadership skills will serve your company better in the long term.

By Andre Lavoie

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


When volleying between two candidates, what qualifications determine the final cut? Every hiring manager has interviewed Paul and Sam, but not every Paul and Sam has been hired for the same reason.

Meet Paul. Paul is a one of the final candidates for a marketing coordinator position at a budding tech startup. He has several years of experience and notable success working as a marketing coordinator for two big name companies.

Now meet the other finalist, Sam. Sam has less experience than Paul working on big projects for big name companies in the marketing field, but she has demonstrated passion and leadership qualities both at work and in her personal life. She's involved in several marketing associations and has her own marketing-related blog.

It's only natural to want to go with Paul because of his extensive experience. However, while Sam has less experience working as a marketing coordinator, her leadership qualities are apparent in her involvement in several marketing associations and projects in and out of the workplace.

Paul, on the other hand, has served as a marketing coordinator for several years at more than one company and is applying for yet another entry to mid-level position as a marketing coordinator. Paul may have the experience, but Sam has the potential.

Related: The Fresh Approach of Google's Star Recruiter

For startup roles especially, leadership potential trumps experience. Startups need candidates who want to learn and grow with the company more than they need candidates who may perform well, but have little desire for growth. Because high-potential (HiPo) talent is largely determined by an employee's aspirations, employers can't simply develop potential -- they have to find it. Here's how:

What to look for.

A good majority of resumes focus on verbs and highlight what candidates managed, created, developed, conducted, etc. While these words are informative, they're not differentiating. What matters more is the quantitative results of those efforts. Candidates who describe -- in numbers, preferably -- how the work they did benefitted the company are great examples of HiPo talent.

In addition to looking for quantitative results, read between the lines and take note of how candidates describe their experiences. There is a lot employers can learn about a candidate's passion and ambition from the adjectives and adverbs he or she uses to describe the work he or she did.

What to ask.

A resume can only tell employers so much about a candidate's potential. Fortunately, the interview provides the perfect time to get down to the nitty gritty. To discover if candidates will bring passion, ambition and possibility to the organization, try asking the following types of questions:

  • Company-specific questions such as, "Which of our values resonates with you the most?" can help employers determine if the candidate did his or her homework on the company.
  • Strategic questions such as, "If hired, what would your game plan be for your first three months in this position?" can help identify HiPo talent by focusing on the candidate's goals and ambitions.
  • Industry-related questions such as, "Where do you go to find the latest news and information on [blank]?" elicit honest, unplanned answers and can tell employers about the candidate's level of interest in his or her respective industry.
  • Personal experience questions such as, "Can you describe a time when you took responsibility to make something happen?" provide employers with real-world evidence of candidate potential.

Related: 4 Ways to Get the Best Talent to Choose Your Startup Over a Big Company

What to listen for.

A job interview is a two-way street. Just as employers aim to learn about the candidate, the candidate should use this time to learn more about the company and the position he or she is being interviewed for. The questions a candidate asks during an interview can be very telling of his or her job fit and future potential. As the famous French philosopher Voltaire once said, "Judge a man by his questions, rather than by his answers."

Curiosity is a huge indicator of HiPo talent, so watch out for candidates who don't ask any questions or rely on run-of-the-mill questions they feel obligated to ask. Candidates who are full of potential are likely to be full of questions. Unprompted questions that go beyond the job position and refer to the company mission, vision and strategic direction are a good sign of HiPo talent.

How to test.

Last, but certainly not least, go beyond the discussion of candidate skills and abilities and have the candidate demonstrate his or her talent. Assessment tests, presentations and other similar evaluations are essential to assessing candidate job fit and future potential.

But whereas skills can be taught, potential cannot. Assessment tests alone won't reveal candidate ambition.

Consider extending an invitation to an industry-related professional development event or even a weekly team meeting. Genuinely interested candidates who are full of ambition and potential will jump at the opportunity to get involved and further develop his or her skills. Best of all, these professional settings give employers a chance to see candidate potential in action.

Related: Why CEOs Need a Talent Acquisition Strategy

Andre Lavoie

Entrepreneur; CEO and Co-Founder, ClearCompany

Andre Lavoie is the CEO of ClearCompany, the talent-management solution that helps companies identify, hire and retain more A players. You can connect with him and the ClearCompany team on Facebook LinkedIn and Twitter.


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